Why Kickstarter?: Corner Gas and Crowdfunding as Promotion

May 21, 2014
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CornerGasMovieWhen Zach Braff took to Kickstarter to fund Wish I Was Here—which debuts in theaters this summer—he was criticized for relying on crowdfunding when he has access to traditional methods of film financing. His reason was that he wanted to make the movie he saw in his head, and was having trouble finding investors who would give him final cut on the film.

The “Reason for Kickstarter” is a key part of any crowdfunding effort. Kickstarter is ultimately an investment: while perks provide a promise of return on investment, there is also the need to establish a need for investment in the first place. Veronica Mars needed fan investors because Warner Bros. wasn’t willing to give over the rights without proof of fan support. Blue Mountain State needed fan investors because they had the rights, but no traditional investors were willing to invest in a property with limited legible fan support. These narratives are crucial in navigating the complicated ethics of projects that come with industry auspices; they may not convince everyone that audiences are not being taken advantage of, but they at least offer a justification for why crowdsourcing is not only valuable but necessary for a given project to exist.

When conglomerate Bell Media and the producers of Canadian sitcom Corner Gas—which ran for six seasons on CTV from 2004 to 2009— revealed their fairly modest $100,000 Kickstarter for Corner Gas: The Movie, one passage stood out in the description:

“The best part about this campaign is that we already know we’re going to make the movie.”

It’s an admission that immediately takes this out of the same crowdfunding conversation as projects like Veronica Mars or Blue Mountain State, although that hasn’t stopped the popular press from lumping them together. Corner Gas: The Movie demonstrates a meaningful shift in the function of Kickstarter, in which it is being taken on as a platform for promotion rather than as a platform for investment.

In the absence of need, the Kickstarter description—and the accompanying video—frame the purpose of the Kickstarter in the following terms:

“Yes, the campaign will help us enhance the movie, but first and foremost, it allows us to give all of our wonderful fans a once-in-a lifetime chance to be a part of the process, and get some awesome, exclusive rewards.”

The video featuring creator Brent Butt expands on these details, suggesting enhancements such as more realistic visual effects for the script’s robots and werewolves and detailing the “Backers’ Club,” which is unlocked with a $25 “investment.” However, to call it an investment would be misleading, given that the description is clear that the majority of the funds raised by the Kickstarter will be going to the fulfillment of the various perks—including speaking roles, set tours, DVDs, and T-shirts—being offered. Whereas perks are typically positioned as a way to offer fair exchange for an investment in the film, in this case the perks are the entire reason the Kickstarter exists: it is suggested in the Frequently Asked Questions that producers had grand ideas to create a great fan experience including behind-the-scenes updates and exclusive merchandise, but didn’t have the budget to pay for it.

CornerGasTheMovie2Rather than funding the film, then, fans are being asked to fund the film’s promotional campaign. Whereas typically the cost of a behind-the-scenes documentary would be considered part of the promotion for a film—thinking here of examples like Peter Jackson’s video diaries for King Kong and the Hobbit trilogy—it’s now been transformed into a perk for those willing to pay for the privilege to be marketed to. Those who are willing to commodify their fandom in exchange for access to the Backers’ Club or for posters and bumper stickers are not ensuring the movie takes place, but are rather enlisting in the producers’ efforts to echo the grassroots success of Veronica Mars in ways that will garner the film more attention, efforts that executive producer Virginia Thompson—who admits this is about marketing and not investment—suggests to Canada.com are necessary due to the inability for Canadian films to get noticed when competing against major Hollywood films with larger marketing budgets.

Producers have taken a preemptively defensive posture in regards to the Kickstarter: in The National Post, Butt predicts

“there’s always going to be a cynical group that says, ’What’s the possible stinky downside to this?’ You can’t not do something good just because someone might find a crappy cloud to put over it.”

However, why should fans be forced to pay to get access to behind-the-scenes features if they already paid by being a loyal fan for six seasons? Where does the $450—the amount fans pay above the $300 for earlier perks—for naming a character go when there is no cost to the production to fulfill the perk in question? What kind of fan economy is being created when “perks” like walk-on roles become something fans pay the production in order to acquire, rather than something that fans win in a contest or in a charity auction? Why should fans be responsible for bridging the gap between the promotion of Canadian and American films as opposed to the conglomerate producing the film in question? And, most importantly, why couldn’t this Fan Club be established outside of the space of crowdfunding, which gives the impression of need where no need exists, likely for the purpose of tapping into the spreadability and visibility of crowdfunding in the contemporary moment (and creating some misleading news reports in the process)?

Whereas Butt frames these concerns—expressed by others in the wake of the announcement—as cynical, they are central to the negotiation of the meanings of fandom within the context of Kickstarter. While any successful Kickstarter for an existing series or intellectual property is predicated on translating fandom into dollars and cents, the terms of that exchange are typically justified by the fact that the production would not exist otherwise. In this case, however, fans are being asked to pay to be a part of fandom and to ensure the production offers fans a meaningful experience (or, more accurately, an effective marketing campaign). The success of the Kickstarter—which passed its goal overnight—would suggest that fans are willing to do so; whether they’ll feel their “investment” was worth it by the end remains uncertain.


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3 Responses to “ Why Kickstarter?: Corner Gas and Crowdfunding as Promotion ”

  1. David Chen on May 21, 2014 at 9:28 AM

    A few thoughts, Myles.

    Firstly, from my reading, the tone of your piece (and tweets) suggest that you DO feel this is a cynical deployment of the Kickstarter model solely made to juice revenue and get marketing promotion. This would defy the ethos of Kickstarter.

    My response to this is that we shouldn’t be placing prescriptive rules on the best way Kickstarter can be used. Kickstarter, as a company, is only 5 years old. In that time, they’ve experienced astronomical growth, having recently announced they’ve been responsible for 1 billion pledges. But while they were initially founded as a way for bootstrapping artists to get funding from friends and family, they’ve evolved to fund massive films by Braff, Spike Lee, etc. and games from the Double Fine guys. I highly doubt they’re done evolving yet.

    So my ultimate point is this: Who is to say what is the “right” way to use Kickstarter? The company, as I mentioned, is just a few years old. After Facebook launched as an ivy-league-college only website, there were those who freaked out when people in high school and older adults were let in. Does that mean that the latter were using Facebook wrong? Or is it more likely that startups evolve to accommodate different people and more people over time?

    I’d venture that the variety of projects on Kickstarter we’re seeing is a “historical accident.” There SHOULD be sites that accommodate fans in the way that would be more transparent than the project you describe above, and feel less “wrong.” But it’s really difficult to build a site like Kickstarter. They just make the process really easy! Their biggest competitor, Indiegogo, is still kind of a hot mess in my opinion.

    As new Kickstarter-like sites launch, I’m hoping we’ll see crowdfunding for all kinds of projects that AREN’T allowed on Kickstarter, including the project above. But we’re not there yet, and in the meantime, I’m not ready to tell someone that they’re using Kickstarter wrong.

    • Myles McNutt on May 21, 2014 at 9:51 AM

      Thanks for your thoughts, Dave. You’re right that I consider this deployment of the Kickstarter model to be cynical, although I don’t know if I’m suggesting that they’re using Kickstarter “wrong.” I would agree that as an evolving platform it can take on a variety of functions, and thus would not criticize this particular Kickstarter through a framework of “Kickstarter Ethics” as clearly-bounded or definitive.

      That said, I would say there is a broader set of ethics regarding how producers interact with fans that is more relevant to this Kickstarter than to others based on the way the platform is being deployed. Rather than using Kickstarter “wrong,” the choice to use Kickstarter in this way opens up a discussion about how fandom is commodified, and how financial barriers reshape meanings of fandom. And my point is less that Kickstarter is not or should not be compatible with their goals, but rather that working so directly against the dominant discursive understanding of Kickstarter requires more careful negotiation of these questions than a project where the “need” is clearly articulated.

      I would have similar questions if the film had chosen to build its own crowdfunding infrastructure (which companies have done in the past), but the discursive relationship between this and other related but dissimilar projects on Kickstarter has entered this into a broader conversation that obscures and complicates its relationship with fans.

      You’re right that the critical questions about the campaign are ones I asked personally, but I guess I would say that I see these not as questions that should preclude Kickstarter from being used, but rather questions that I think the Kickstarter in question needs to answer in order to negotiate its place within a broader understanding of fan engagement.

  2. […] Corner Gas: The Movie was announced, as well as an adjoining Kickstarter campaign that is currently wildly successful. Questions have been raised about Corner Gas: The Movie‘s reliance on government arts funding, as well as the ethics of using Kickstarter to fund Corner Gas: The Movie‘s marketing campaign. […]